Until today, I had never heard of Claude Neal. I know that every February is Black History Month but it was just a coincidence that I listened to Claude Neal: A Strange and Bitter Crop this morning on NPR.
How had I never heard the horrible story of the 1934 lynching of Claude Neal? It's hard to get through the NPR report for a lot of reasons. Not just the gruesome detail but the fact that this happened at all.
As I listened, I asked myself the same question that I asked over and over again while working on Gidon's story. How does this happen? What kind of atmosphere prevails in a town, a county or a nation, that allows this kind of inhuman savagery to occur? What was in the air? What was in the water? How does society get to the point in which - I actually can't bring myself to write what happened to Claude Neal. I am at a loss for words.
This, I think, is one of the aspects of Gidon's story - the story of the Holocaust and other genocides and atrocities that leaves me most grasping for answers.
Recently, I saw a meme on social media that said "If you've ever wondered what you would have done during the Holocaust, the answer is exactly what you are doing right now." I was so taken aback by the presumptive negativity of that. Can you compare what is happening right now in the world to the decade before the Holocaust?
In some ways, I think we can. Let me explain. Periods of time in history, during which we dehumanize others come as regularly as the rain. It doesn't take a history major to figure that out. But - do we always notice the process through which we are becoming so fearful and dismissive of some other group, some other type of people that we would actually be whipped up into a killing frenzy?
If you are anything like me, you think no WAY. Never. I would never, ever take part in such a thing.
But maybe we give ourselves too much credit. Maybe we need to be more vigilant about how we view "the other", whether that means someone of different ethnicity, sexual orientation or beliefs than ourselves. It doesn't start with killing frenzies, lynchings or ditches in the forest. It starts with mumbling to yourself - why don't you speak English?! Or - How did he wind up homeless, anyway? Or - they should stay in their own country! The parallels to Gidon's story and the story of hate wherever it is too often found are too close for comfort to me.
It was only yesterday that the US House of Representatives passed The Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which qualifies a lynching as a hate crime. It only took 100 years for them to pass that law.
As Black History Month draws to a close, let us remember Claude Neal today. Nobody was ever brought to justice for his terrible death. But it did not pass unnoticed and in Claude's name - in Gidon's name, in the name of the millions and millions who have suffered at the hands of hate, we will remember.